This article deals with a special kind of dejection.

It is about the gloomy feeling that comes with the notion of being under arbitrary, inescapable and despondent authorities that, though democratically elected, enforce tyrannical and nonsensical rules.

Any self-asserting individual running a small decent business of his own or striving for uprightness as a public servant in Latin America is bound for an asymmetric cultural clash with the simulating disposition of our political culture.

This disposition can only be described as a behavioral dysfunction deep-seated not only in the State’s bureaucracy but in the average citizen as well. To be sure, this condition reflects on the GDP, the trade balance, the exchange rate, the Human Development Index and all those indicators you can read about in World Bank’s reports. Those economic and social indicators, however, and any interpretation of them I might be able to contrive have nothing to do in this article.

As I set to write this monthly instalment, I feel the urge to share the musings of the late José Ignacio Cabrujas, a noteworthy Venezuelan playwright, on the feelings of irredeemable collective failure that every single day overflow the hearts and minds of millions of enterprising Latin Americans of all walks of life while they struggle to uphold individual liberties in thought and action.

Venezuela’s foremost public intellectual during the last two decades of the 20th century, Mr. Cabrujas (Caracas, 1937, 1996) was certainly a rara avis by any Latin American standards. Originally trained to be a lawyer, he excelled as a student and joined his university faculty while still very young. However, he soon departed from a promising career as a Law scholar to follow the call of theater.

For more on the telenovela, see Global Soap: Poverty Bears a Woman’s Face, by Ibsen Martinez.

A gifted actor as well as a superb playwright, Mr. Cabrujas eventually became one of Latin America’s best-paid telenovela (soap opera) writers. I guess that a short digression on telenovela and influential intellectuals in Latin America is in order.

Though telenovela is probably the rudest form of “low-cult” entertainment available to hundreds of millions of Latin Americans, Mr. Cabrujas’ achievements as a soap writer were certainly astounding.

Instead of going into treadmill rags-to-riches melodramas, his teleplays, miniseries and telenovelas relentlessly grappled all sorts of social and political issues, ranging from Venezuela’s 20 century political history to marital violence.

Despite the seeming aridness of his subject matters, Mr. Cabrujas unorthodox views never yielded to oversimplifications or easy solutions and engaged a mixed audience made up of marginales (our shantytown lumpen dwellers), middle-class housewives, corporate executives, college professors and government’s policy makers.

If it’s true that a influential intellectual is someone who writes on public affairs drawing the elite’s attention, well, that’s what Mr. Cabrujas did with his kind of soap operas. Eventually, he ended up writing Op-Ed page essays, yet he felt more at ease within the realm of telenovelas. Thus we can say that he moved from the shabby fringes of the entertainment business to center-stage intellectual relevance.

Shortly before his untimely death in 1996, Mr. Cabrujas was invited to lecture an audience of political science experts. They were interested in his ideas about an imminent state reform act then being discussed in Congress. Though Mr. Cabrujas seldom improvised, the original manuscript has been lost, and all what is left of his most celebrated lecture is a verbatim transcription usually referred to as El Estado del Disimulo (“State of Pretense”).1

Though far from being scholarly, it is a text full of wisdom conveyed in a unique ironic style that allows him to elaborate on the make-believe liberal constitutionalist attitude displayed by our 19th century sly, authoritarian military caudillos and their civilian cronies originally in charge of creating our first republican institutions.

Mr. Cabrujas playfully dwells on the words and expressions that most frequently appear in the myriad constitutions and laws that Latin American independent nations have written and re-written for almost 200 years.

The most frequent words and expressions are, “temporary”, “provisional”, “unforeseen”, “forbidden”, “emergency”, “national sovereignty”, “national emergency”, “State’s competence”, “State’s exclusive competence”, “State’s sole and exclusive competence”, “pending a definitive solution”, “unlawful”, “national interests”, “high committee to draw the new legal framework”, “this law derogates the previous one”, “this law derogates the Supreme Court ruling numbered as”, “cases not contemplated in this law will be considered in due time” and, again, “forbidden.”

According to Cabrujas, circumventing the Law in Latin America, not out of criminal malice but as an absolutely necessary resort in order to reasonably go about our personal lives, has made unruliness the core of our civility.

This self-defense culture that evolved over two centuries unwittingly turns citizens into contumacious trespassers and officialdom into a host of corruptible condoners. The common tenets of this culture can be summarized by two Spanish expressions, namely, mientras tanto (“for the time being”) and por si acaso (“just in case”.)

Imagine a attorney counselling a small entrepreneur. “I agree with you—he would say—these requirements to license your business are simply preposterous. That’s why a new law is being discussed in Congress. Still I suppose you are not in a position to indefinitely wait for whatever they might come up with. And there is no way around all that paperwork and rubberstamping. It’s an absurd law, but it’s the law, you see. For the time being, though, I’ll talk the solicitor into making an exception with your case but this might have some costs apart from the legal ones. Why not being nice to the solicitor? I mean, just in case.”

Cabrujas concluded that most Latin American institutions are hindrances the citizenry and officialdom can dispense with as long as they mimic their abiding to a set of ambiguous rules.

My Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines subject as a noun derived from the Latin word subjectus meaning 1: one who is under authority, 2: One that is placed under authority or control. As an adjective, subject means suffering a particular liability or exposure.

According to those definitions which I find quite accurate, and as long as you live in the society of accomplices and abettors, it is very difficult to attain any citizen’s condition worth its name.

In such places you are only entitled to be a subject who mimics an archetypal citizen that’s nowhere to be found.


A verbatim transcription in Spanish can be found at El Estado del Disimulo. [Downloadable MSWord .doc file.]


*Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.